For the second consecutive year, it all comes down to Week 18.
As the Jacksonville Jaguars prepare to take on the Tennessee Titans in Nashville this weekend, all eyes are on the Jags and their quest to repeat as AFC South champs. The Titans will be looking to spoil that fun, with no playoff berth on the line for the Jags’ bitter rival.
“You just go back to last year. It was a tough, tough game. It will be no different (Sunday),” Jacksonville head coach Doug Pederson said Wednesday. “The AFC South rivalry games, there is a lot to be playing for. It doesn’t matter who is out there playing.”
In the history of the AFC South, the Jags have only ever won two division titles. The Titans have won two in the last three years. Winning on Sunday immediately cements the Pederson regime as one of the best in team history, and the Jags as the perrenial top dog in the division.
“You look at the history of the AFC South and it has been dominated by Tennessee as of late,” Pederson said. “We are trying to make our mark. For us to be in this position in the second year, it is a credit to the players and coaching staff.”
On the injury front, the team is getting healthy at the right time.
Receivers Zay Jones and Christian Kirk are both on the right track. Jones is “better than he was last week” while dealing with a hamstring. Kirk was activated on Wednesday off the IR after a groin injury and is considered day to day. His activation means he is potentially able to play Sunday. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence practiced on Wednesday, but was limited.
#Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence was at practice today but did not throw the ball during media availability portion of practice.— Demetrius Harvey (@Demetrius82) January 3, 2024
Christian Kirk was at practice and took part in drills with us out there: pic.twitter.com/6x8qRxvR3W
Prior to the team’s shutout win over the Carolina Panthers, the team admitted it had its best week of practice in quite a while. Pederson expects this week to be a continuation.
“You can tell how they attack the practice where they are mentally. And it pays off,” Pederson said. “This is when you lean on your leadership. It was a good week last week, it will be the same, or better, this week.”
The coach admitted his team needed the win over the Panthers in the worst way possible in a number of ways. Had the team lost, the playoffs were largely out of the picture. Now the team has put themselves in a spot where they have multiple avenues to the postseason, and have considerable momentum.
“Before Carolina you would say our confidence was shaken,” Pederson said. “We needed that win to be in this position. It does give you confidence but yet you still have to put in the work. You treat each game as if it’s a playoff game.”
Even with two paths to the playoffs, Pederson is telling his team there is only one: a win.
“There is only one that matters for us,” Pederson said. “That is all I need to tell the team. There is nothing other than trying to win this game on Sunday. I am not going to cloud their minds with stuff. Our focus is trying to beat Tennessee, regardless of records and who is playing, not playing.”
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill will be taking the reins for Tennessee, after incumbent rookie Will Levis suffered injuries in back to back games.
Tannehill has dealt with injuries all season, but has been the catalyst for the Titans run of success in recent seasons.
“He is a veteran guy. He is smart,” Pederson said. “He knows where to go with the football. He relies on that run game to get that going. You expect that from him.”
Everyone on the Jags also knows that Tennessee head coach Mike Vrabel wants nothing more than to win, no matter who his unit is facing.
“He has been raised in this league the right way,” Pederson said of Vrabel. “He has been able to use his prior experience in a positive way for them. There is a level of intensity and physicality with Mike’s teams over the years. Regardless of where they might be right now, these guys will play hard for Mike.”
Both Pederson and Vrabel have extensive playoff experience through their careers as players and coaches.
Much like the Titans feed off of Vrabel’s success and energy, Pederson hopes his team does as well in their quest to get back into the playoff mix.
“They see that and recognize that from me,” Pederson said of playoff experience. “There is credibility in the locker room. That goes a long way. We have a young team eager to win. All of that helps us this year, next year and however long it goes.”
Akin to last season, the Jags made their bed and must sleep in it in terms of their record.
Had the team handled business in the middle of the year, a final do or die game with the Titans couldn’t decide playoff fate. In both years though, the team takes solace in being cornered, and can hopefully utilize that mentality one more time this season.
“One thing about this team is they come out and play hard when their backs are against the wall,” Pederson said. “They find comfort in that. But I will keep talking to them and we will get it figured out.”
Pederson noted a handful of players who stepped up against Carolina and will need to do so again this week.
Corner Tyson Campbell had a strong game, and will need to have another against veteran receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
“He played better last week,” Pederson said. “(The Panthers) had some good receivers so it will be interesting to see again. This will be big for him. The challenge is to go out and do it again.”
The offensive line also played well, adding Cam Robinson back to the fold for most of the game. Veteran Tyler Shatley also filled in nicely for Walker Little and Ezra Cleveland, according to Pederson.
“Cam was good, wasn’t great. Shatley was good. Offensive line as a whole was good,” Pederson said. “We will see how it goes this week in practice.”
The two big stars of Sunday’s win were Josh Allen and Travon Walker.
Allen set the single-season sack record for the Jags, while Walker tallied his ninth sack of the season. The unit has one more game to wreak havoc and potentially will the Jags into a chance at the Super Bowl.
Against a largely immobile Tannehill, Sunday could be a huge day for Walker and Allen. It could come down to those two again making a big play at the end, as it did one year ago.
“Josh has done a great job for us,” Pederson said. “Travon, you just see the gradual improvement. He is a young player continuing to learn. To see what he has done this year, the sky’s the limit for him. Josh has said that Travon is on the right track to break his record, and I think he is on the right track to do that at some point.”